“Mapping Nantes's Geography and Imaginary, 1716-1940”

46th Annual Western Society for French History Conference
November 1st-3rd, 2018
Portland, Maine

The 1930s saw amateur historian Alcime Sinan first call Nantes the “Venice of the West.” This moniker emerged just as the final branches of the Loire River were filled in to create a continuous right bank and a single island, which have defined the city’s geography ever since. Author Julien Gracq expresses similar nostalgia in La Forme d’une ville (1985), speaking of the Loire as “chassée du centre de la ville” and seemingly “traitée comme une servitude gênante et polluante.” These remarks would appear to indicate an inverse correlation between Nantes’s form and imaginary, with the Loire gaining prominence in the city’s imaginary over time as urban planners filled in its canals from the early eighteenth century on.

In this paper, however, I argue that the decoupling of Nantes’s form and imaginary is solely a twentieth-century phenomenon. To make this case, I blend historical, cartographic, and cultural analyses to study a series of maps of Nantes drafted between 1716 and 1940. These sources represent both urban form and imaginary in that the practice of cartography prior to aerial photography meant that mapmakers were also surveyors akin to the walkers in Michel de Certeau’s “Marches dans la ville” (1980). Mapmakers thus inscribed an embedded knowledge of how they conceived of Nantes at ground level into their representation of the city as seen from above. These cartographer-surveyors progressively deemphasized the river, creating a correlation between urban form and imaginary that reversed only in the twentieth century, when the shifting of port activities to Saint-Nazaire jeopardized Nantes’s long-standing identity as a port city. Understanding the historical interplay between form, imaginary, and identity proves important today, as urban planning on the Isle of Nantes has endeavored to renew the ties between the city and its river.